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The (often) overlooked value of mountains for European citizens

Why are mountain value chains so crucial? How resilient are they to climate change? Learn about the significance of mountain value chains, their role in driving Europe’s sustainable transition and their vulnerability to climatic changes.
Credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel

Climate Change Adaptation in Mountains Annotation

This text is derived from the findings and results of MOVING (MOuntain Valorisation through INterconnectedness and Green growth), a Horizon 2020 project (2020-2024) coordinated by the University of Córdoba, gathering 23 partner organisations. It seeks to establish new or upscaled value chains to contribute to the resilience and sustainability of mountain areas in Europe. You may download their ‘Inventory of Mountain value chains’ by accessing the Featured Download section in the right-hand column.

Introduction

Mountains, with their majestic landscapes and resilient communities, play a vital role in Europe’s wellbeing. Home to around 16% of Europe’s population and covering approximately 36% of its surface, they stand as both sentinels of change and beacons of opportunity. Mountains provide many public goods and ecosystem services for the benefit of both highlands and lowlands communities. These are often organised through value chains. In this article, we delve into the role of mountains in creating value across Europe. We explore the significance of value chains, their role in driving Europe’s sustainable transition and their vulnerability to changes in climate.

Mountain value chains: Everyone’s richness

What do the Trento Doc Wine nestled in Italy’s Eastern Alps, the certified ecotourism experiences in the Southern Romanian Carpathians, and the public goods generated by the High-Value Farming in Stara Planina, Bulgaria have in common? These diverse offerings share a common thread as they are mountain value chains. Value chains correspond to a connected set of activities, spanning from producers to consumers, touching every corner of a territory. This goes from the extraction and production of inputs to processing, distribution, and marketing, to end with the delivery of good and services to the final users. In essence, value chains are the most powerful ways to connect people, nature and resources, and generate value along the process.

As part of the MOVING (MOuntain Valorisation through INterconnectedness and Green growth) Horizon 2020 project, now at its midpoint, we have meticulously identified over 470 mountain value chains from agriculture, forestry and fisheries (see featured download). Spanning over 70 European mountain regions, this inventory produces the most comprehensive collection of this type. It also sheds light on a type of territory, the mountains, which are often marginalised and forgotten. Based on this inventory, we identify three key lessons on mountain value chains and the value they add to Europe as a whole.

#1: A great diversity

Many mountain value chains are connected to agricultural and food commodities, while they also exhibit a significant degree of diversity. Of the 472 value chains we mapped as part of the MOVING inventory, approximately 47% encompass plant-based food and drinks, and 34% include animal-based products. The remaining 13% relates to the valorisation of natural resourcesthe production of traditional artifacts and energy, and the provisioning of tourist reception facilities and public goods. The considerable presence of managed and unmanaged forests in mountain areas is reflected in the proportion of value chains associated with the utilization of wood for energy and furniture production, accounting for approximately 5% of the inventory’s value chains.

This diversity mirrors the range of mountain landscapes across Europe and its neighbouring countries. Examples on the MOVING’s radar include cheese production like Portugal’s Serra da Estrela and Switzerland’s Tête de Moine; lamb from France’s Val de Drôme area as well as the Austrian and Serbian AlpsIberico ham from Spain’s Sierra Morena; carob powder – used in bread – from the Greek island of Crete; chestnut flour from the French isle of Corsica and northern Italy; drinks like Scotch malt whiskypublic goods production from Bulgaria’s Stara Planina region and ecotourism certification in Romania’s Southern Carpathians.

#2: Wide territorial impact

The value created by mountain value chains extends far beyond their territorial boundaries, cascading into neighbouring urban centres and lowland areas. The reason is straightforward: the goods and services these value chains offer frequently meet the needs of individuals residing beyond mountain regions. Among the 23 value chains we studied in depth, over half identify themselves as “global value chains”. The recipients of these mountain-based products and services span not only the breadth of their respective country but also stretch across the European Union and even beyond. For many of these value chains, both the consumption phase and the processing and distribution phases take place outside the mountains. 

This means that the value generated by mountain communities and regions has an economic impact also on other regions, for instance through more employment opportunities and increased availability of high-quality products and services. Mountain value chains also bring about positive environmental and social changes, like safeguarding biodiversity, preventing abandonment, minimizing natural hazards, harvesting water, producing energy and sparking innovation. Our findings also hint that economic gains sometimes overshadow social and environmental considerations.

#3: Working together

Mountain value chains do not operate in isolation. On the contrary, they are intricately interconnected, frequently mutually reinforcing each other. Agrifood value chains often prove beneficial in crafting gastronomic routes and attracting tourists, thereby strengthening tourism-related value chains. As an illustration, consider the mountainous region of Maçico Noroeste in Portugal, where the Alto Douro wine value chain is frequently leveraged to promote cultural routes. Yet another captivating example unfolds in the Speyside Malt Whisky value chain in the picturesque landscapes of Scotland. This value chain weaves in food, drink, nature tourism and the use of whisky by-products in livestock feed.

When value chains interact with one another and generate new economic, social or environmental benefits, this creates an “assemblage”. The assemblage approach is a cornerstone of MOVING research brings forth a plethora of both positive and negative outcomes. On the positive side, assemblage initiatives have led to economic diversification, preservation of local traditions and native breeds, and conservation of natural landscapes. However, challenges such as conflicting interests, resource limitations, and governance gaps can hinder the success of such initiatives.

Positive and negative impacts of “assemblage”
Positive and negative impacts of “assemblage”.

MOVING offers a glimpse into the tangible impact of the assemblage approach on mountainous regions. Assemblage initiatives have sparked innovation and synergies in these regions, driving economic diversification and job creation. These initiatives not only ensure economic viability but also strengthen social cohesion and ecological resilience.

#4: Vulnerable but already adapting to climatic changes

The project conducted a comprehensive analysis of the impact of climate change on natural resources and land-use systems across 23 mountain areas. Through interviews and workshops involving key stakeholders, it became evident that climate-related events stood out as the primary drivers of vulnerability in these mountain regions, with changes in rainfall patterns and temperature ranking as the most significant factors. The figure below illustrates the ranking and relative importance of these vulnerability drivers.

Drivers of vulnerability ranked by importance (Source: MOVING Consortium).

Furthermore, stakeholders were actively engaged to share insights into the various adaptation mechanisms already in practice within their respective areas. They identified 160 adaptation mechanisms, suggesting that although mountains are vulnerable to climate changes, they are already adapting to those changes. Most of the measures identified were perceived to have high social and environmental feasibility, while technological requirements and economic costs were perceived as key barriers to their scaling up and implementation. 

For example, in the Swiss Alps Mountain Reference Landscape, advanced soil practices and sensitisation efforts focusing on soil preservation and intercropping initiatives have been implemented, in synergy with climate mitigation strategies. In the Crete Mountain Reference Landscape, research seeks to understand the effects of climate change, including the development of predictive models regarding its impacts on various crops in the region. These examples demonstrate the proactive and multifaceted approach adopted by mountain communities in addressing climate-related challenges and building resilience within their unique landscapes.

Concluding remarks: Making the most of mountain value chains

To tap into mountain value chains’ full potential, policymakers must adopt a territorial approach that recognises how these value chains interact, with a particular focus on fostering positive connections and reducing conflicts. Strategies enhancing and upgrading mountain value chains should pursue synergies across sectors, actors and practices, even non-mountain ones. This approach can yield mutual gains for all, provided that careful attention is put on the impacts of assemblage, both negative and positive factors, and on long-distance interconnections, with the analysis of socioeconomic and environmental impacts over long periods. 

The MOVING project casts a spotlight on the remarkable potential of mountain value chains in weaving together social well-beingenvironmental protection and economic prosperity in Europe. While challenges exist, our research calls for greater attention to mountains and their key role in driving Europe’s green transition while adapting to the challenges posed by climate change. Testimonials emerging from MOVING regions offer evidence and inspiration for how and why mountains should not be forgotten, emphasizing the urgent need for climate-conscious policies to safeguard these vital ecosystems.

Authors:

Carla Lostrangio (AEIDL), Miranda García (AEIDL), Kirsty Blackstock (HUTTON), Lukas Zagata (CZU), Michele Moretti (UNIPI), Mar Delgado (UCO), Emilia Schmitt (UCO)

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